Since coming to Chicago, I’ve kept on a spreadsheet for my reference a log of the number of hours I’ve practiced improv, as well as storytelling. My meticulously kept Google calendar allows me to do this: I not only keep a detailed schedule but go back and log how much time I actually spent on things, delete things that never happoened, add things that came up, etc.
This not only allows me to see how many active hours I’ve put into improv since getting here, but can also compare my time invested month over month.
As of today I’ve logged 168 hours of improv practice since moving to Chicago, as well as 33 hours of practice in storytelling. This only includes time spent practicing in class, workshops, practice, rehearsals and shows.
Time is logged under the following conditions:
- Time logged does not include time seeing shows (though watching shows is valuable).
- No duplication of hours. If a 2 hour practice mixes theatre and dance, I don’t count 2 hours for both. I split the bill and count each discipline as one hour.
- For show performances, I only include the time I actually spent performing, e.g. if I did a jam and was only part of a 10 minute set, I only count 10 minutes, i.e. 1/6 of an hour (0.17 hours).
- For tech rehearsals (which are more for designers and crew than for performers), I only count performance work I recall us doing. For most of these sessions, we maybe performed a few minutes outside of a cursory run through, though for some I recall having a full rehearsal before or after tech.
- I also adjust time if I know part of a given session was not spent actively practicing, e.g. if I have a 2.5 hour class on the calendar but we started late, left early, or spent time addressing unrelated business, I don’t count the entire session. Thankfully, with older entries, I had already adjusted the time.
So, in a nutshell, the above totals are after these adjustments. I suppose I could have counted more time, but for the sake of authenticity, I err on the low side with any estimates. If there’s a session where we may have practiced 2 hours but I only remember practicing for one hour, I only count one hour.
In light of this, I recently went all the way back to 2010, when I returned to theatre after a long hiatus, and not only counted up those improv hours, but all the hours I spent practicing other theatrical disciplines.
This includes my experience in:
- Conventional stage theatre (the thread through which I discovered improv!)
- Clown Theatre
- Stage Combat (I separated this out from theatre since the training involved specialized skill and choreography)
I went week by week through my entire Google calendar, which I’ve kept with airtight detail since mid 2010 (incidentally right before I returned to theatre).
I logged a total of 1607 hours of performance art practice between September 7, 2010 (the day of my first improv class, the first performance anything I had done since Vegas)… and December 31, 2014 (the day after my arrival in Chicago).
540 of those 1607 hours (1/3 of total hours) came in 2011 alone. Over half of my theatre hours happened that year (217 of 426), as did the bulk of my stage combat training (72 of 98).
I engaged in practice with at least one performing art activity during 633 days (out of 1577 total between 9/7/10 and 12/31/14). That’s about 40% of the days of my life. Plus, that 60% of idle time includes several trips out of town (with no opportunity to practice), as well as large swaths of 2014 where I did no artistic anything while working hardcore to save up for my summer NYC trip and, later, my move to Chicago. When applicable, performance art was a part of the vast majority of my available Seattle life.
Improv: 277.5 hours
I’ve already logged 168 hours between January 2015 and today (and will probably log another 30 before month’s end), while the scope of my improv practice in Seattle over the previous five years (including sketch comedy work) only adds up to 277.
It was a lot harder to find opportunities to practice in Seattle; in fact, friends and I created Wonderland in part to give us a chance to practice. But at the same time, once I began working on dance and other fringe material, I did admittedly leave improv by the wayside. While I did see shows during this time, I logged zero improv hours in 2013, and a refresher course at Comedysportz Seattle was the only direct taste of improv action I had in 2014.
As of today, I have practiced improv a total of 445.5 hours. And counting! I realize for someone highly active in improv, that’s probably nothing: A player practicing improv 10 hours a week can amass over 500 hours a year.
Theatre: 426 hours
Over half of my theatre hours (216 to be exact) all came during 2011. I had the good fortune of working on several shows during this time, as well as extensive training in Meyerhold Biomechanics under George Lewis. This doesn’t include my clown and stage combat training during this year. 2011 was super busy!
Even though I left stage acting behind for more interesting stuff around 2012… I couldn’t really stop practicing theatre. My solo show was, once written, a theatre piece. Any sketch work I did required stage and acting work. Some of my Studio Current experiments during the Flower Season involved theatrical performances. These weren’t huge chunks, but I did amass 76 hours total after May 2012.
Also, this doesn’t include my undergraduate theatre work at UNLV from way back in the day, or anything I did in high school.
Clown Theatre: 186.3 hours
Most of this is the extensive training I experienced with George Lewis at Freehold Studio during 2010-2011, plus a handful of workshops. The piece that Ear to the Ground gave me the chance to do at Not All Clowns Are Bozos IV padded that total a bit, as did my work with Xan Scott on her fringe festival show Apocalypse Clown.
Stage Combat: 98.5 hours
Literally all of this was during Freehold’s year long Stage Combat program during 2010-2011, which culminated with SAFD certification in unarmed, broadsword and rapier/dagger staged combat. I’ve never had use for the certification itself and let it lapse in 2013. I still use bits and pieces of the training today, and the general discipline that Fight Master Geof Alm taught us is still a big part of all the work I do today.
Dance: 552.7 hours (!!!)
Bear in mind, with those dance hours:
– I had never so much as taken a modern/ballet/etc dance class in my life until 2012.
– I’m not counting ballroom dance, any dancing done in my free time for fun, or choreography done in theatre shows.
– This only counts clearly defined practice and performance of compositional or trained improvisational dance.
– I haven’t formally practiced dance anything since mid-2014.
For someone who isn’t a classically trained dancer and certainly does not look the part, that is a lot of dance practice.
I trained in modern, ballet, improvisational and jazz dance. At my best I could do intermediate level dance work. I was part of several experimental productions. I consider Danielle Agami and the Gaga approach to be among my biggest influences. I made a few dance pieces of my own. It taught me a lot about spatial awareness, presence and physical communication.
I may never do dance again, or I could make tons of dance pieces someday. As of now I’m focused on storytelling and improv, but you never know.
Storytelling: 66.4 hours
Only recently have I made a point to practice storytelling. I’ve done it over the years, but usually with minimal preparation. I also counted some of my Drawn Dead work in this, as I used storytelling to develop the show. I do think practice is underrated and important. Martin Dockery’s exceptional solo storytelling work is mostly practice, with little actual writing.
Some projects and practices didn’t fit neatly into either bucket, so consulting my relatively vivid memory of those experiences I approximated a split between the categories above. For example:
- My work on my solo show Drawn Dead was at times an even split between storytelling and theatre work, but once I began rehearsing the practice was pretty much all theatre.
- With Studio Current lab sessions, I usually counted half the time as dance, and omitted the other half since experiments and discussions were often so variable I couldn’t clearly count them as practice in any discipline. Occasionally, with some Plumages and events, I’d count a small portion of the time as storytelling or theatre, as some of my work dabbled in that.
- Though they dabbled in many genres, I counted all of my practice and work with GENDER TENDER as dance, since that’s mainly what we did.
- Sketch comedy is a weird mix of improv and theatre. I didn’t make a sketch category since my work with it wasn’t as frequent. For most of my sketch practice, I counted development/writing time as 50/50 improv and theatre, and all rehearsal and performance time as theatre (since once sketch is written, it is basically a stage play).
- My Banana Obscura sessions with Ectal Greenhaw frequently devolved into delightfully weird (and occasionally very drunk) discussions, so I didn’t count most of that time. But I did count a quarter hour of improv and anywhere from that to an hour of theatre for the work we did do during our meetings.
So this invites a question: Did doing all this burn me out?
In itself, I don’t totally think so. It was an insane workload, especially during 2010-2011, as well as when you factor in all the shows I went to see during that span (I cut way down on seeing shows after 2011), as well as the fact that I was also running + doing yoga and Pilates during stretches.
But the thing that got me was that I got tired of working against the traditions and habits of these communities. While I had outlets that were receptive to my work, there wasn’t much of a venue or much support for what I wanted to do. While I also think I had a few connected enemies in the Seattle arts community, I don’t think they were nearly as big a factor as the overall attitude of the respective communities.
Seattle, despite its mainstream reputation, is not a particularly open minded or emotionally mature place, and those attitudes spill over into the arts community. Seattle artists, for all their talk and efforts about experimenting, simply won’t venture out of their comfort zones and many aren’t fond of anyone who challenges them. That’s a long story for another time, but rest assured it was a constant high pressure zone that I was spinning my wheels trying to work against. And this has chased a lot of other talented artists out of Seattle, not to mention many of my peers and colleagues.
But to sum it up, working in the performing arts is a labor of love that to some degree is always going to require a consistently busy schedule. It’s only worth the trouble if the effort gets rewarded, and what gradually happened is that across the board working in that community ceased for me to be sufficiently rewarding. Burnout for anyone is merely the overall realization and sense that what you’re doing is not rewarding anymore. I may have been satisfied had I lowered my expectations, but I wasn’t about to do that.
This may all be for naught, since the rapidly rising cost of living in tech-rich Seattle may be pricing much of the arts scene out of the city anyway. The clock’s been ticking on the fringe arts in Seattle for the last couple years.
But now I’m in Chicago, and now I’m once again working hard. And even now I hit a busy stretch and wonder, even when I’m having fun, if the strife and associated stresses are worth it.
An exercise like this took me back years and gave me brief flashbacks of all the painful moments, as well as the great ones. It led me to look at today and realize that, no matter how concerned I am for the future, today’s looking great.
And it’s a sheer raw-data look at how much work I have put in over the last five years, in so many disciplines. All of it has made me who I am today. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all totally been worth it and I have no regrets.